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Alexander Wolfe
Alexander Wolfe
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Branding Brilliance Behind Cisco's Borderless Networks

Our Server Den columnist says that Cisco is smartly encapsulating the deep technology of next-gen networks supporting mobile workers and streaming video, but Juniper and HP ProCurve won't stand idly by.

Cisco CEO John Chambers is a worthy successor to Steve Jobs as the industry's best packager/marketeer of complex technology. Consider how he's taken the consumer-impenetrable network switch and publicized it as a touchy-feely movie streaming machine. Or how teleconferencing systems previously associated with deathly boring meetings are being commercialized as fun video chat portals for Ellen Page and friends. But wait; there's more. . .

The networking behemoth's latest foray is of a piece with what I call the "Intel-ization" of Cisco. That's its obvious intention to become a public-facing brand at least as well known as the chipmaker, even if the general public has little clue about what its products actually do.

I'm speaking about Wednesday's "Borderless Networks" announcement, in which Cisco unveiled a boatload of switches and software upgrades, all with the intention of supporting the morphing of networks everywhere from the old model of fixed-location users sending and receiving data, to the rapidly emerging model of large numbers of occasionally connected mobile users accessing video and other harder-to-support data types.

It's complex stuff, and it's incredibly hard to summarize, explain, and digest, even to network-knowledgeable people. Indeed, that humungous sentence in the previous paragraph is probably the most succinct rendering of the import of Cisco's Borderless Networks announcement that you'll read anywhere. If I'm patting myself on the back (and, hey, somebody's got to), it's only because I despair of the fact that, outside of network geeks, most of this stuff is impenetrable to people.

Do you really think that even most casual tech watchers understand the challenges presented by the large numbers of mobile workers, who are going to be dipping onto and off of network endpoints in increasing numbers, as corporations decide to apply the capacity they've mostly got sitting there anyway to extract more value from their smartphone- and laptop-equipped employees?

The top-level challenge is obviously security, because making it easy for authorized workers to ride your net also undercuts existing protections against bad actors. Add to that the need for better policy assessment, through which you have to parse which users can go where and access what.

Oh, did I mention energy management? Sure, you throw a "green" slogan on this stuff, the better to keep the carbon-footprint-concerned folks happy. But, hey, with all these new users, you're actually paying real bucks to keep the network lights on, so consumption control is indeed crucial.

Finally, there's QoS, or quality of service. In the old days (like, a few years ago), you didn't have to worry about this on a global basis, because dropped packets could be resent and data could be reassembled in the proper sequence. Now, though, with voice and video, dropped words and pictures are a no-no, not only because they annoy people -- "can you hear me now?"-- but because they spotlight the network opposite of an unintended acceleration problem. Thus, QoS has to become more deeply embedded in network processes to assure that video streams properly.

Whew? Got your arms around all that? (For the lay folks to whom the TV commercials are meant to appeal, the appropriate question would be, bored yet?) Well, the important take-away is that all this stuff I've just described is part of Cisco's Borderless Networks announcement.

So the technical meat is really there. However, I have to say that this part of the story doesn't surprise me, nor does it earn Cisco sole industry kudos. By this I mean that, however good its products and strategies are, other companies are doing this stuff, or on the path toward doing this stuff, too. (In that regard, see my column, Server Den: Juniper Fires Back At Cisco CRS-3.)

Cisco's real brilliance, and the thing for which I give Chambers props, is its packaging of all this technology under the "Borderless Networks" umbrella. It's very smart, as smart in its own way as has been Cisco's combining a server and switch in a cabinet and calling it a Unified Computing System (UCS).

Let me take the packaging connection one step further. Consider how disruptive UCS has been, in a market sense, to the traditional server business. (Don’t take my word, Gartner says so.) Previously, HP, IBM, Dell, and Sun (now Oracle) had pretty much locked down the rules under which they competed--technology to technology, price to price, feature to feature. Sure, maybe there was some tough marketing talk, but you could slip a thin paper shim between the different messages.

Along came Cisco, and it refused to play. Cisco up-ended the messaging, telling customers to forget about all this old fangled best-of-breed stuff, and instead come buy an easy-to-wrap-your-brain-around, one-stop-shop bundle. Unified.

In reality, the mid game is nowhere near as simple as the early bump one gets from a disruptive market entry. For one thing, HP, IBM, and Dell are not chopped liver, and they don't sit back unresponsive to market threats. (For some recent perspective on this front, read Server Den: IBM Reloads Enterprise Branding.

More importantly, one has to separate out the different dynamics at play as regards the public-facing message (a company's hot new marketing angle) and how customers make their decisions. Because unless you're looking at the most thinly resourced "S" of the SMBs, most buyers continue to make their purchasing assessments using traditional metrics. Sure, shiny new campaigns do have an effect, especially insofar as greasing the skids for approval, if ones' bosses are all hot and bothered about the latest hot company. (Remember the old "no one ever got fired for buying IBM.)

But the game on the ground changes much more incrementally than a quick scan of technology news Web sites would lead one to believe.

Turning back to the networking sphere, Cisco would seem to have an advantage attendant to its big public footprint. However, here again competitors such as Juniper, HP ProCurve, Brocade, Force10, Extreme Networks, and other competitors are not going to take things lying down.

Already, the early sense is that Juniper will respond by emphasizing its deep technical capabilities, and the differentiation offered by its opened up Junos OS network operating system. Indeed, Juniper issued a statement the other day, which read in part: "In 2009, Juniper rolled out our vision for 'the New Network' along with truly revolutionary innovations in silicon, systems and software." (See Server Den: Juniper Fires Back At Cisco CRS-3.)

And HP ProCurve will likely amp up the messaging surrounding its value and reliability propositions, which I submit is no small things insofar as the ground game goes.

I was going to conclude by saying that one additional effect of Cisco's positioning should be the acceleration of the deployment (strictly speaking, I should say upgrading or retrofitting) of networks better suited to large numbers of occasionally connected mobile workers, and video.

However, it's also possible that there will be something of a repeat of the early-2000 telecom build-out frenzy, where the technologies capabilities available outstrip user demands. Because it is indeed feasible that, while corporations and enterprises everywhere do want to make better uses of their no-longer-chained-to-the-cubicle workers, the modalities for how to do this aren't completely obvious, and will take a good long while to work out.

(For a related take, see Bob Evans's Global CIO: Will Cisco's Revolutionary Router Torpedo Tinseltown?.)

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